June 19, 2017
Singles Aren't Scoring Like They Used To
Last year, I wrote about how singles have been in a steady decline, setting an all-time low (as a percentage of plate appearances) in 2016. Today, I’m going to look at singles and something to which singles are related: Runs. Runs aren’t headed in the same direction as singles, as this chart encompassing the 30-team era shows.
Runs moved more or less in tandem with singles in the middle years shown above, but not at the beginning of the 30-team era, nor in recent seasons. The implication of late is that scoring runs is becoming less dependent on stringing together a bunch of singles.
It feels as if there should be a relationship, though, doesn’t it? Singles are a building block of runs. Some of the most famous runs in history involved singles. Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard ‘Round the World following two singles and a double. Edgar Martinez hit The Double after Joey Cora and Ken Griffey singled. Batters who hit singles can score, and they can drive in runs.
Looking at the chart above, you could imagine the ratio between singles and runs heading toward an all-time low. And you’d be—at least so far this year—wrong! At least on a team basis. Here are the 15 teams with the lowest ratio of singles to runs in baseball history. All data for 2017 is through games of Saturday, June 17.
(The 1994 Tigers would top the list—646 singles, 652 runs, 0.991 1B/R ratio, but they played only 115 games in that strike-shortened season, so I ignored them.)
Here’s the thing about most of the clubs on that list: They were prolific run-scorers. They got lots of runs, as they got plenty of doubles and triples and homers to support their singles. The 1938 Yankees had an .812 OPS and scored 6.15 runs per game, both first in the American League. The 1999 and 2000 A’s had identical .273 TAvs, third in the league, and were fourth and third, respectively, in runs scored.
In fact, every team on that list scored at least 5.5 runs per game (the major-league average so far this year is 4.66), except three: the 2010 Blue Jays, the 2017 Cubs, and the 2017 Mets. If I were to list the top 20, we’d pick up the 2017 Dodgers and the 2017 Brewers. The top 51 includes this year’s Rangers, Indians, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Yankees, and Tigers; only Washington and New York have scored over 5.5 runs per game.
So 2017 is shaping up as a year in which a) singles aren’t big components of runs, and b) there aren’t as many runs being scored as in other years in which singles per run were low. Here are the 10 top seasons.
So there you have it—the Steroid Era, more or less, plus 2016 and 2017. (Again, I’m ignoring the 1994 strike season, which otherwise would’ve placed 10th.) And, um, gee, what do all of those years have in common?
BP founding member Joe Sheehan coined the Guillen Number, which is the percentage of a team’s runs that come via home runs. The term is named after Ozzie Guillen, not for his playing (he hit only 28 home runs in his 16-year career) but for the White Sox teams that he managed, which relied on the long ball for their scoring. Here are the 10 American and National League seasons with the highest Guillen Numbers:
I’m guessing that this doesn’t surprise you. The home run revolution that began after the 2015 All-Star break has resulted in the highest percentage of runs scored via home runs in baseball history.
Now, there are plenty of reasons for the decline in singles. Infield shifts, for one. The type of batted balls for which they’re designed—grounders and soft liners—are the stuff of singles. The air-ball revolution, which has resulted in the lowest rate of ground balls in this decade. Adjustments batters have made to pitches down in the zone, as Wilson Karaman illustrated last week.
But one of the corollaries of the home run explosion is that it has reduced the importance of other run-scoring strategies. If more than two-fifths of your runs are going to score on a ball hit over the fences, why waste an out on a sacrifice? (Yes, I know, there are ample reasons not to bunt even if the guy at the plate or in the on deck-circle isn’t a threat to go deep, but the logic’s intact.) Why risk an out on a stolen base attempt?
Similarly, singles just aren’t as integral to scoring as they were in, say, the long-ago season of 2014, when homers accounted for just a third of major-league runs. This isn’t to say that batters aren’t willing to hit singles in the way they’re not bunting or stealing bases. But if you’re concocting a recipe for scoring runs in contemporary baseball, singles just aren’t going to be as high on your ingredient list as they were a few short years ago. We may not set a record for the fewest singles per run in 2017, but if current trends continue, we will soon enough.